Going the Distance: Carol O’Hear, MD, PhD

Completed her pediatric hematology/oncology fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in 2014 and joined Genentech in South San Francisco, California, as an assistant medical director

What is ultra-running?

“Ultra-running,” or “ultra-distance running” is defined as anything over 26.2 miles, or anything longer than a traditional marathon. I love all types of running and over the past several years, I’ve run everything from the mile, to 5Ks, traditional marathons, all the way up to 100-mile runs. My preferred type of running is trail ultra-distance, and I try to do at least one 100-mile run each year. Usually, these long-distance races are run in one stretch, which means running through the night, and usually through the mountains.

When did you start running? Did you participate in any other sports?

I started racing when I was seven or eight years old. At that time, my motivation was to spend more time with my dad, and we trained for and ran 4Ks and 5Ks together. At my middle school, the only organized sport available was cross-country, so I joined the team, although my motivation then was the free pizza party at the end of the season for kids who ran more than 60 miles.

In high school, I played basketball and tennis, but I realized that I preferred the camaraderie and the competition in cross-country. I continued to focus on running through college and graduate school, and while I was back home in Indiana for Christmas break, I ran my first 10-mile trail race.

What prompted you to enter that race and to start ultra-running?

After college, I started running farther and farther, so it was a natural progression. That year I ran the 10-miler was also the first year Trail Runner magazine came out. All of the runners were given a copy of the first issue, and I read that magazine so many times that the pages started falling apart. My favorite article was written by a man who had just finished what’s called the “Grand Slam of Ultra-Running,” which entails running the four oldest 100-mile trail races all in one summer – basically running 400 miles within the space of 12 weeks. I thought, “That sounds like fun. I can do that.” So, I went back to Seattle, signed up for a 50-mile trail race and started working toward that goal.

There’s a wonderful sense of fellowship within ultra-running that I haven’t experienced in other sports. It’s an interesting sport because technically everybody is running for themselves. However, when you’re out there in the mountains for so long, you realize that you are dependent on other people. If you need help, other runners are often more than happy to sacrifice their own race times to offer their assistance.

Do you have any horror stories of running on the trail?

I ran the Leadville 100-miler in Colorado, which is famously known being one of the highest 100-milers. It is run between 9,000 and just under 14,000 feet elevation. The first time I ran it, I was living in Seattle, which is basically at sea level, so starting a race at 10,000 feet was quite a shock to my system. Around mile 70, in the middle of the night, I became hypothermic and started hallucinating. Luckily, it wasn’t anything terrifying: I hallucinated that there were people cheering me on along the side of the course, and that there was a pizza waiting for me just a few more yards ahead. I suppose pizza is a running theme in my running career…

But I got through the night with the help of a great pacer and a baggie of warm mashed potatoes and bacon from an aid station. Things started looking better the next day, and I found the energy to finish the race – barely.

The biggest challenge in preparing for these runs is to train your legs to run even when they are tired. You have to keep telling yourself that it will get better. Don’t give up yet because there will be a second wind, a third wind, and a fourth wind… There will be highs and lows, and you have to mentally trick yourself to power through the lows.

What stands out as the proudest accomplishments in ultra-running? Are there any trails or races that you still want to tackle?

In 2004, I finished as the third-place female at the Western States Endurance Run (the oldest 100-miler in the country with a long and rich history in the ultra-running community), with a time of 20 hours and 24 minutes. To be able to go out there as a relative newcomer and do well was pretty amazing.

And, in the summer of 2008, I finally finished the “Grand Slam.” That summer ended up being a very sub-optimal time to run those races: weather conditions were bad, and, because it was the summer between the first and second years of my residency, I wasn’t able to train very well. A race weekend entailed taking overnight call, leaving the hospital in barely enough time to fly or drive to the race for runner check-in, and starting running at 4 or 5 a.m. the next day.

Obviously, my times suffered as a result of that crazy schedule, but I actually improved as the summer went on, to the point that I finished the fourth and final race as the first-place female. In the end, it was wonderful to come full circle and achieve the “Grand Slam” goal that sparked my interest in ultra-distance running.

Clearly, ultra-running requires determination and endurance – do you find yourself using those skills in your career as a hematologist?

Absolutely – I feel like I use all of the skills that I use in running in hematology. I don’t ever run with music, so I spend all of those hours on the trail thinking and processing things – including what’s going on at work, troubleshooting and prioritizing the projects I’m working on.

I don’t give up easily, in work or in running. There are ups and downs in each part of my life, and in both running and in my career, I’ve learned to focus on the positives rather than get bogged down by what’s going wrong. I believe I’m much more effective at work because I run.

Also, because I’m now accustomed to being up all night running, staying up on call in the hospital never bothered me. It’s a lot easier than running 100 miles!


Join Dr. O’Hear on the ASH Foundation Run/Walk on December 6, 2015. For more information, visit webapps.hematology.org/runwalk.

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